Thursday, December 30, 2004

Books of Influence: part three 

I never planned this as a mini-series; to begin with, I was just going to list a dozen or so books that I'd read as a child, maybe with a one-line explanation of the influence each had had. However, in digging through old memories, those single lines grew, as I realised the extent of their influence. They weren’t necessarily favourites – there were plenty of other books I might have enjoyed more – but what these have in common is that they gave me something that I carry around with me still today; they contributed to forming the person I now am.

I had to study Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre for my school O-level exams (the forerunner to the current GCSEs, taken at age 16). It wouldn't have been a book I would have chosen to read at that time; I think at that age I'd just discovered Asimov's Foundation trilogy (well, it was still a trilogy back then, anyway) which was much more to my immediate tastes. I struggled slowly through the opening chapters which had been set to be read as homework. I could at least recognise the quality of the writing, but those opening pages were hardly inspiring to a 15 year old boy.

Yet even in the apparent dullness of the initial story line, I glimpsed something new, something I'd never found before in a book. Written in the first person, this wasn't just a story describing Jane's actions and the events around her; as I read, I began to experience her world through her senses, experience her emotional responses. These weren't just one-word labels for feelings; the writing itself was an expression of feeling, and carried those emotions wrapped up within it. As with Chesterton’s book, I found experiences here that mirrored my own growing awareness of emotional responses to the world and the people in it.

Jane Eyre may have been a fictional nineteenth century woman whereas I was a flesh-and-blood twentieth century youth, but in spite of those differences, there was one thing at least that we had in common. At that point, neither of us had experienced adult love. And as the seed of love between Jane and Mr Rochester germinated and grew even before she was aware of it, so my appreciation of that love grew as I read. It hardly seemed to matter that I was reading from the woman's point of view; even though I'd never been in love, to my surprise and joy I seemed to have an empathic understanding of what it felt like. There was no “have to” about reading now - I was hooked and devoured the rest of the book over the next couple of weekends.

I felt something special when I'd finished - I'd seen deep inside another's soul, I felt that I understood what I had found there, and I felt a sense of pride in that perception. It seemed to me that there were few others in the class who appreciated Charlotte Bronte's writing in the same way; most saw only the story and missed the depth of emotions experienced by the characters within it. Maybe I was wrong in that judgement; maybe many others experienced that same emotional awakening but, like me, were too reticent to express it fully. But a comment one day from one of the girls in my class stuck in my mind. “You're not like the others, Borrows,” (at school, boys were invariably known by their surnames, even amongst friends); “you're different…” She said some more, but I was too embarrassed to hear. But I do remember the look in her eyes.

Was I innocent? Yes; naïve? – undoubtedly. Nevertheless, that story added significantly to my growing up.

Mind you, I still haven't got the hang of it. Either of growing up, or of love.

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